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Could US Africa Policy be Derailed by the Middle East C


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By Charles Cobb Jr.

Washington, DC

Across Africa, the Middle East crisis is provoking passionate debate bordering sometimes on angry condemnation. Both Muslim and "anti-colonial" sentiment, already stirred by the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the war in Afghanistan, have been inflamed by what is perceived to be the heavy-handed treatment of the Palestinians by Israel and uncritical support from the world's superpower, the United States. Charles Cobb Jr asks whether Africa's relationship with Washington could eventually suffer?

"If you have an ally like Israel that doesn't listen to the United States, a country that is tremendously supporting it, and the United States isn't able to bring about a positive result between the Palestinians and Israel, at least in this conflict, it can lead to doubts about the United States capacity to deliver more broadly."

That comment does not come from a critic of U.S. policy, nor even a skeptical media analyst. It comes from a senior U.S.administration official, speaking on background, and expresses the fine line that the U.S. is attempting to walk as the Middle East crisis deepens.

"U.S. credibility" could be at stake, this official acknowledged to allAfrica.com, Monday. "If we look at our global foreign policy, particularly after 'nine-eleven,' I think there was a lot of credibility about the United States' ability to build a coalition and to achieve a result."

But in most of Africa, the Palestinian cause - suicide bombers notwithstanding - is seen as having more justification than that of a mere terrorist movement. Commenting on a congressman's recent trip to Africa, one of that legislator's aides said that in the countries the congressman visited, Middle East conflict "doesn't seem to be resonating on a religious level. People understand colonialism but don't relate it to Jews versus Muslims."

Even the senior official agrees that African sympathy for the Palestinian cause exists "not so much because of religion," but "also because of Africa's own past, the whole colonial history."

By appearing to endorse Ariel Sharon's view that there is no difference between the US pounding Afghanistan to cleanse it of terrorists and Israel pounding the West Bank, the US undermines the sympathy it gained in the latter months of 2001. And this shift in attitude muddies the anti-terror coalition waters in at least some African nations, like Sudan where just last week the foreign ministry continued to claim it was on board the anti-terror fight while the commander of the defense forces called for volunteers to aid the Palestinians in their "holy war.".

The Bush Administration is divided too, say sources within government, over how best to respond to the intensifying Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Hard line" officials (who are said to include Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney) are inclined to agree with the broad search and destroy effort of Israel. Others within the Administration - notably Secretary of State Colin Powell - want to give aggressive diplomacy a chance.

Whichever view prevails, the consensus of analysts contacted by allAfrica.com is that while Africans may be largely sympathetic toward the Palestinian cause, the U.S.-driven anti-terror effort is not in immediate danger.

Part of the reason lies in the simple fact that the U.S. is so powerful, says Professor Andre Kapanga, who was Congo-Kinshasa's ambassador to the United Nations during the regime of Laurent Kabila. "It can use its power to push Africans to join the coalition against terrorism."

If the crisis develops into a full-blown war drawing in other nations, however, Kapanga predicts that African stability could be affected. "If it is accompanied by an oil embargo [and associated price shocks]," he says, "that would have a tremendous impact - as in 1974 - on the struggling economies of Africa." But Kapanga sees this as unlikely.

In building its anti-terror coalition, the U.S. did not hesitate to pressure African nations, or even to twist some African arms, reminding leaders that it was in their own interest to support the U.S. agenda. Sometimes a stick is used. The carrot is preferred.

Money helps keep a key country like Egypt in check, for example. The Cairo government has received more than US$25 billion in aid from the United States since the Camp David Accords were reached in 1978. "If they broke relations [with the U.S.]" says Kapanga, political pressure in the U.S. would mount to reduce or end that aid. "The government in Egypt would be in jeopardy."

Looking further south, a Congressional aide involved with African issues points to the role of Economic Support Funds (ESF) supplied by the U.S.: "They're supposed to be short-term funds to stave off crisis, but somehow the criteria has become that [these funds] have to be linked directly to the war on terrorism."

Sudan's opposition National Democratic Alliance is getting some of this money, as are Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria. "But," says the aide, "there are some really needy nations, like Rwanda, Congo and Angola. Somalia needs it far more than [for just] keeping Al-Quaeda out."

The senior administration official who is concerned with the Bush Administration's credibility is also aware of African resentment at the amount of money being poured into the Middle East to no apparent effect, acknowledging that African nations are unhappy "that we spend so much money and attention on the Middle East crisis - that we give so much money and foreign assistance to Egypt and to Israel, but they are not bringing about any results. They see that as assistance that they are losing, although they are lining up with our foreign policy."

In several African nations Muslim leaders have taken the lead in organizing protests against Israeli actions. In Niger, Monday, at the main mosque in the capital city of Niamey, protestors burned the Israeli flag and promised to raise money for Palestinians. In Mali, Muslim leaders passed a motion of support for Palestine and invoked a curse on the Israeli and American leaders. In predominantly Muslim Mauritania, which has full diplomatic relations with Israel, thousands of protestors took to the streets to denounce Israeli actions on the West Bank, forcing the police to use tear gas to disperse them. And close U.S.ally Morocco has seen a one-million strong demonstration in the streets of Rabat.

South Africa in particular has been pressing the U.S. government to take a more even-handed approach. Political science professor Dr. Ken Menkhaus, who taught in Egypt during the 1980s, recalls that among his Palestinian students then, "the parallel between occupation of the West bank and apartheid South Africa was their favorite."

And today, says the senior official, South Africa's government remains committed to the Palestinian cause. They press the case more strongly than any government in Africa. "We get [regular] phone calls from them saying, 'What about the human rights issues? Occupying Ramallah is not acceptable.'"

Other African leaders have called Washington as well, saying that "the United States needs to be balanced. You need to get the Israelis not to kill Arafat." But the official says it would be an overstatement to say there have been a lot of such calls.

Reaction in Nigeria, has also been fairly strong. The government has urged an immediate withdrawal by Israel troops and muslim groups have expressed anger at the situation; President Obasanjo, hosting China's President Jiang Zemin, urged him to use China's influence on the UN Security Council to help resolve the crisis.

Nigeria's reaction has to be of concern to U.S. policymakers, says Learned Dees of the National Endowment for Democracy. With twelve of its northern and muslim states now having switched over to full-scale Sharia law, there is already rising religious tension, and the Middle-East conflict "exacerbates well-known tensions on the religious divide."

Most analysts agree that while spillover from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has the potential to destabilize African nations, it is impossible to generalize about either reactions to the crisis or its effects on U.S.- Africa relations.

Morocco's enormous street protest two weeks ago, for example, does not necessarily suggest that Washington-Rabat relations are under strain. "Links between the United States and Morocco are strong, though complicated by the King's need to strike a balance between secularists and Islamists," says Howard University professor Sulayman Nyang, a diplomat for his country, Gambia, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, between 1975 and 1978.

At this stage, despite the pressure and protest from a number of African nations, the "real players" as one official put it, are at the northern end of the continent. North Africa is considered part of the Middle East, while Sub-Saharan Africa is not considered influential on this issue.

And to rub salt in the wound, African nations like Senegal, South Africa and Nigeria, who are working hard to focus Western attention on African needs and priorities, could ultimately see their efforts go unrewarded by a Bush administration distracted by the political and military fires in the Middle East.

So we are back to where we started, from the point of view of some African analysts. If U.S. credibility does suffer in North African nations as a result of Washington's pro-Israel policy, that might perhaps give U.S. officials pause for thought. Africans further south, however, are unlikely to get a hearing.

The tough reality is that while the U.S. can effectively command African support for its policy objectives on terrorism, Africans have no leverage in reverse.

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